The effective end of the Tigers' season came, appropriately, in Cleveland last Monday in a most appropriate manner for 2007. In a game the Tigers absolutely had to win, they led the Indians, 5-2, entering the eighth inning. Cleveland scored three runs in the eighth off reliever Joel Zumaya, then won it in the 11th on another walk-off home run by Casey Blake.
This was a game the Tigers wouldn't have lost last season, and wouldn't have lost for the first half of this year. On July 19, the Tigers were 57-36, they led the American League Central by one game and were the best offensive team in baseball. But since then, they've gone 28-35 to fall 7½ games behind the Indians and 5½ games behind the Yankees for the wild card. So, instead of going back to the playoffs and trying to defend their AL pennant, the Tigers will spend October at home. And that wasn't supposed to happen.
"We lost two set-up guys [Zumaya and Fernando Rodney to injuries], we lost a 17-game winner [Kenny Rogers] and we lost [Placido] Polanco and [Gary] Sheffield for a while in the second half,'' said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. "But, no excuses. We didn't do enough. But in a way, I'm even prouder of this year's team than I was of last year's team because we had so much adversity, and we kept on playing. We're 14 games over .500, you know.''
Optimism was high in Detroit this year. Not making the playoffs didn't seem possible in March.
"I wish we were going to the playoffs, but I'm happy with the way we played," Leyland said. "I'm satisfied with the effort from everyone. People have asked me, 'Why didn't you yell at [the players] like you did last year after Cleveland?' Well, who am I going to yell at? Who am I going to get mad at? [Curtis] Granderson? [Carlos] Guillen? Those guys had really good years.''
The injuries to the bullpen were the biggest blow. Last year, the Tigers finished second in the league in bullpen ERA at 3.55; this year, they are 11th at 4.55. Zumaya missed most of the season with an injury to a finger on his pitching hand, and when he returned, he wasn't 100 percent. The game in Cleveland last Monday "was not a slam dunk like it was last year,'' Leyland said. "Because of the injuries, we asked guys to do things they'd never done. It wasn't fair to them.''
The Tigers' starting pitching wasn't the same this season, either. Last year, they led the league in starters' ERA; this year, they are eighth. Rogers, who won 17 games last year, has been limited by injuries to 10 starts and three wins. Justin Verlander helped fill that void, but Jeremy Bonderman won two games after July 1. The Tigers are loaded with terrific young pitching talent, led by left-hander Andrew Miller, their No. 1 pick in June 2006, but Miller labored with his control, then lost velocity as he tried to throw more strikes.
The Detroit offense hasn't been the same in the second half. Before the All-Star break, the Tigers averaged 5.95 runs per game; since the All-Star break, they've averaged 4.85 runs per game. Catcher Pudge Rodriguez, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, has 17 RBIs since the break. First baseman Sean Casey has four home runs this season, and only 18 RBIs in the second half. Sheffield did not play from Aug. 22 to Sept. 6, and he has one home run in 40 at-bats since coming off the DL. In the second half, he has hit only .202 with four homers and 16 RBIs.
I wish we were going to the playoffs, but I'm happy with the way we played. I'm satisfied with the effort from
--Tigers manager Jim Leyland
"Early this year, we faced some pitching that wasn't ready for the big leagues,'' Leyland said. "We weren't going to continue that kind of hitting no matter who we had in the lineup. Some guys could have done better, but we weren't going to pound the ball like that all year.''
The Tigers will be back next season. Their system is loaded with good, young players, including outfielder Cameron Maybin, who has gotten to play on the big league level over the last month and a half. Miller is going to be a star. Granderson became a star this year. Magglio Ordonez is going to finish second in the league to Alex Rodriguez in the MVP balloting. When closer Todd Jones finally slows down someday, Zumaya appears to be the Tigers' closer of the future.
"Look,'' Leyland said, "the way I look at this year is this: The Tigers, Twins and Indians all floundered for a while, no one took control of the division, then the Indians did, and they won. But I like our club. We have a good club. I'm proud to the manager of this club.''
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Is This a Great Game, Or What?" has been published by St. Martin's Press and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.